Monday Matters (January 11, 2021)

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Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy, for we have had more than enough of contempt.
-Psalm 123.4
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.
Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.
Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way,  over those who carry out evil devices.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret-it leads only to evil.
-Psalm 137:1-8
 
During the past ten years, Mississippi as a society reached a condition which can only be described, in an analogous but exact sense of the word, as insane.
-Walker Percy in 1965

Guidance from another time

From family and friends, I received a bounty of books this Christmas. I’m eager to read them all, now stacked on my bedside table, backed up like planes circling LaGuardia for a landing. As I write, I’m halfway through Jon Meacham’s book entitled His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope.  

This weekend, after watching too much news about the events in Washington, I retired to continue reading Meacham’s book. Dog-eared page led me to the chapter which begins by recounting the bombing of the church in Birmingham in the midst of the civil rights movement. Four young girls died after hearing a Sunday School lesson on this subject: The Love That Forgives. As I read this account of that event which is said to have altered the course of our history, I did wonder how much had actually changed. Last week’s image of the confederate flag marched through the capitol cannot be unseen. A gallows with a noose was set up outside the Capitol. Too many searing images.

Those images and what they reveal about who we are make it hard for me to know what to say this Monday morning. So I’ll turn it over to Mr. Lewis and Dr. King to learn from the way they responded to the desecration of that holy place in Birmingham. The circumstances differ, but I sense there are lessons for us as we navigate the desecration of another kind of holy place, the U.S. Capitol. I believe that Mr. Lewis and Dr. King provide guidance, as they fought for justice and peace, refusing to back down to evil, daring greatly, getting in good trouble, risking everything, all the while guided by principles of nonviolence, by the Sermon on the Mount, by prayer to the God of the exodus, by the spirit of Jesus, by the way of love.

Mr. Meacham reports that the bombing gave the debate over nonviolence new resonance. There were questions of whether the guiding principles of non-violence could do any good. They were fighting with love and the haters were using dynamite. Mr. Lewis recalled: That was always a question during the movement. After the church bombing, after so many violent episodes, people would say, “How can nonviolence defeat violence? The Klansmen don’t go to funerals. We’re the ones who go to funerals. But we couldn’t give up. Violence was not an option for us- not if we wanted to prevail, not if we wanted the Beloved Community.”

Dr. King preached at the funeral for three of the four girls. He said: “God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city…And so I stand here to say this afternoon to all assembled here, that in spite of the darkness of this hour, we must not despair. We must not become bitter, nor must we harbor the desire to retaliate with violence. No, we must not lose faith in our white brothers. Somehow we must believe that the most misguided among them can learn to respect the dignity and the worth of human personality.”

I don’t know how these men found their grace and courage. I don’t know how they found strength to hold onto faith. I’m not sure how they kept hope alive. I’m pretty sure I would have folded or fled. But they kept on. They suffered for it. We are better for it. They speak to us from one crazy decade to another, calling us to find a way to move towards beloved community.

Is there something, even a small thing, you can do this week to move toward that place? If so, just do it. If you can’t think of anything, pray for God’s spirit to show you a way, to show you the way. And echo the prayer of the psalmist: Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.

                                                             -Jay Sidebotham



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Monday Matters (January 4, 2021)

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Philippians 3:10-14
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 
 
 
II Corinthians 5:16-20
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;  that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 

Remember to forget

It’s been said that in the journey of faith, we don’t need to be instructed as much as reminded. Holy remembering runs as a thread through our tradition. The people of Israel are called to remember Abraham, a wandering Aramean, to remember the Exodus, to remember God’s provision in the wilderness. When we gather for eucharist, the prayer over bread and wine always includes reflections on God’s goodness expressed in the past, a section called anamnesis. Not amnesia. Not forgetting.

I often find in my own life that the best way to move forward is to check out the spiritual rearview mirror, recalling how God has acted in the past. As a community, we need to reckon with ways we have fallen short and done great wrong, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation. There is holy remembering for sure.

But there is also holy forgetting. As we leave a particularly challenging year, I’m mindful of what we need to leave behind. These thoughts were triggered not only by the calendar, but by a lecture I read given by Walter Brueggemann (awesome theologian and biblical scholar and wise human being) in 2015. The talk was one in a series on memory. The title of this presentation: Nostalgia and Obligations to Forget.

He speaks of a mandate to forget old wounds, noting that most of us are masters at nourishing old wounds that we do not ever want to be blotted out. He cited a pastor named Janos Pasztor who at a gathering of clergy was given 90 minutes to tell his story, to talk about his engagement with the Hungarian Church. After his time was up, he had only gotten to 1300 AD. He required more time. Nothing had been forgotten in that church.

Brueggemann then spoke of a time he was in Macedonia with a friend who said “I wish all Albanians were dead.” When asked why, he said that in the year 938 AD, they burned his church down. Brueggemann cited the Lost Cause narrative of the Old South, a matter of remembering too much too well. He noted that we are all tempted to locate our deep hurts and to dwell there.

I visited one church which over 100 years earlier had merged two congregations, one for wealthy folks, the other for less affluent workers. Upon merger, each church had brought a processional cross, one grander than the other. 100 years later it was still the case that the grander cross from the more prosperous church always, I mean, always, came first in procession. Try to change that and trigger a big old church fight.

When my mother, now departed, was in her early 60’s, she received a letter from a friend she knew growing up. My mother hadn’t seen her in four or five decades. Out of the blue, this woman wrote a letter and said: “I want you to know I forgive you for how you hurt me when we were growing up.” My mother had no idea what she was talking about, and so had not been troubled by it. Clearly this woman had been letting this injury swirl around in her head for years. I ached for that wasted energy, the damage to her poor spirit. I wished for her release.

For me, each year brings a New Year’s Resolution to let go, to give up resentments, to practice forgiveness towards others and myself. Let’s just call it a work in progress. I resolve to embrace the wisdom of Anne Lamott who says forgiveness is giving up the hope of a better past. I need that freedom, so I often pray Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart. I can hold on to resentments with the best of them. It’s a perilous loop. I can live in the unreachable past of how I might have been a better parent, child, pastor, friend, boss, employee, citizen. I pray now for our over-heated political system as we lurch from one injury to another, animated by a partisan spirit of retribution. “We’re doing this because your party did that.” Is there a way to break the cycle?

St. Paul wrestled with his own history of persecuting the church, in an ongoing struggle. He occasionally talks about his past, his sins and successes. In one of his most helpful passages, he says that forgetting what lies behind, he presses on toward the goal of knowing Christ. He keeps his eyes on that prize.

I want to try to do that in 2021. Any interest in joining me in that adventure? Ask yourself as the new year begins: What do I need to remember? What do I need to forget?

                                                             -Jay Sidebotham



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Monday Matters (December 28, 2020)

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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
 
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
 
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
 
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.  (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
-John 1:1-18

Grace and truth

As if to ward off seasonal silliness, the calendar of our church surrounds Christmas with a variety of observances indicating darkness, which makes a star shine more brightly.

We kicked it off in the last days of Advent (a season marked by foreboding and occasional tough messages of judgment) with the feast of St. Thomas of doubting fame. We read about this guy not only right before Christmas, but also right after Easter. That suggests to me that doubting is not only okay. It’s inevitable. It’s part of the deal.

Then right after Christmas, we move into a series of feast days that might make those who follow Jesus wonder about the cruise ship they signed up for. The day after Christmas we celebrate the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church, put to death by stoning by good religious folk. Then we observe the feast of St. John the Evangelist. According to tradition, he was exiled on the isle of Patmos. Right after that comes the feast of the slaughter of the innocents, recalling Herod’s murderous attack on the infants of Bethlehem. It’s a reminder (as if needed) that the cruelty of ambition and power tends to harm the most vulnerable. No news there. Shortly after that, we remember Thomas Becket, a man for all seasons, whose life ended with murder in the cathedral. Again, church fights are nothing new.

Taking these a day at a time, this Monday morning we wake up to the feast of John the Evangelist. I have in mind the distinctive way John told the story of Jesus. His Christmas story does not go to Bethlehem, but rather all the way back to the beginning of creation, where the word was with God and the word was God. Maybe as a meditative moment in this Christmas season, read the prologue of John’s gospel, included above (John 1:1-18). What word or phrase strikes you from that passage?

The phrase that struck me this weekend: Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Let’s start with the truth. The lineup of observances around Christmas underscores that Christmas itself is not all that holly jolly. It’s a story of a refugee family left homeless, victim of political capricious cruelty. It speaks truth about our lives. As Scott Peck said in three choice words opening his popular book The Road Less Traveled, life is difficult. 2020 has confirmed that. Pandemic breeds loneliness and loss. Economic challenges are steep. Racial divide, political divide, religious divide seem more pronounced.

We need to know the truth, as tough as it might be. But perhaps the only way to handle the truth is to place it in the context of grace. In scripture, the truth of a broken world is clear to see. In Jesus, that broken world is on the receiving end of God’s love. Said another way, truth leads to grace. It’s the message of incarnation that God pitched a tent among us, not in a five star hotel but in a makeshift maternity ward, a cave to shelter animals.

The good news of Christmas marvelously and miraculously blends grace and truth. Light shines in the darkness, showing us who we are. (Sometimes that smarts.) It also shows us a way forward. Grace and truth. You can’t have one without the other. Without grace, truth is too much to bear. (I’m hearing Jack Nicholson saying: You can’t handle the truth.) Without truth, grace is cheap. Put the two together, we find an authentic, healing way forward. We have reason to celebrate. We have gospel which tells us that in the midst of mess, love shows up. Actually, more than that. Love wins.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (December 21, 2020)

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If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
-Jeremiah 20:9

So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge;  for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
-Acts 4:18-20

 

If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!  For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
-St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (9:16-18)

What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. Yet, what can I give Him? Give my heart.
-Final stanza of “In the bleak midwinter”

Getting to yes

So did Mary have a choice? Could she have said “Thanks, but no thanks”?

We debated that question at a bible study last week, in reflection on the story of the annunciation. It brought to mind a fine sermon I heard years ago. The preacher (named Mary of all things. Did she know?) posited that the angel Gabriel may have knocked on a few other Nazareth doors before finally finding someone who would say yes. Let’s be clear. The scriptures don’t indicate whether that’s true. But it raised for me a question about how we respond to God’s call. We tout free will, freedom of choice, our own agency. But we could ask: do we have a choice?

Mary’s encounter with Gabriel is only one in a long series of holy callings described in scripture. Often the response indicates that the person hearing the call believes God has the wrong number. Moses heard the call via the burning bush, and asked: “Who am I to take on the Pharaoh? I’m not as good a public speaker as my brother by the way. Try him.” Jonah heard the call to go east and headed west as soon as he could. A rich young ruler wanted to follow Jesus. Jesus said: “Great. Give away your possessions and come on.” The young man went away sad. Isaiah heard the call and declared himself a person of unclean lips. Peter heard Jesus’ call and said to Jesus in response “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Jeremiah heard the call and said “I’m too young.” Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, heard the call and said “I’m too old.”

Mary, in contrast, after understandably admitting some puzzlement (Gabriel, run that by me again,) soon said, “Here am I” believing that with God all things are possible.

Did Mary have a choice? I’m not sure. Sometimes scripture indicates that the people who are called by God see no other pathway. I put a few examples of that holy compulsion in the excerpts above. The first disciples, St. Paul and his companions, the martyrs of the early church answer the call even though it got them in a mess of trouble. Life could have been, would have been so much easier. It’s been true ever since. Martin Luther said “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Abraham Lincoln said he was driven to his knees in prayer because he had nowhere else to go. John Lewis, a modern day witness, crossed the bridge and got in good trouble.

As we move from Advent to the Christmas season, I’m wondering how you have responded to God’s call in your life. It may be a nudge to do something small, like reaching out to someone in the grips of loneliness amidst covid-tide. It may be a major shift in your life’s commitments as a new year starts.

Questions of call can be found all over the Christmas story. Was it a choice? Was there no other way? Mary could have simply said “I don’t think so.” Joseph could have cancelled wedding plans. Shepherds could have attributed the angels’ appearance to too little sleep or too much wine. Magi could have noticed an unusual star and said, “How interesting” and kept on with royal duties. Instead, for each of these characters the response was yes, perhaps a road less taken that has made all the difference.

As we come to the celebration of Christ’s birth, we note that God’s grace has appeared, a great gift. This Christmas, how will you say yes to that gift? How will you find room for it in your “no vacancy” life? How will you give thanks for it, with your lips and with your life? Is it simply unthinkable to say anything but “yes”? Perhaps answering such questions can provide insight into the reason for the season. That is my prayer this morning for you and for me.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (December 14, 2020)

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Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

-Matthew 5:16

‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 

-Matthew 25:37-40

He must increase, but I must decrease.

-John the Baptist, speaking of Jesus, John 3:30

 

Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.

-Albert Schweitzer

 

Turn to the light.

-Scott Carlton

Trash talk

My daily routine involves an early morning walk, time for quiet, orientation to the day, and some prayer. It’s a privilege that part of that daily walk can take place on the beach, thanking God as the sun rises again, thanking God for the gift of another day. As it’s gotten colder, the number of people on the beach is reduced. A couple weeks ago I was walking on the beach and I saw only one other person. A tall young man in a wetsuit with a surfboard emerged from the dunes and headed across the wide beach to the ocean.

Our paths came close to intersection as he reached the shore. I was close enough to see that he put down his surfboard. He leaned over and picked up a couple pieces of trash on his pathway on the beach. He stood up and looked around. He saw that a good couple hundred yards away there was a trash can. He left his board and walked all that way to deposit the trash. I thought of how easy it would have been to leave the trash where it was. It wasn’t a lot. I realized that I too often have just passed by litter (literally and figuratively). It has caused me to begin to carry a plastic bag in my pocket on these morning walks, ready to pick up any trash I see. I began to shift the way I behaved because of what I saw this young man do. He was a witness to me.

(I should say that my wife, who is more spiritually evolved than I am, has been picking up trash on our beach walks forever. We have teased her for it. Funny how we sometimes we don’t let those people closest to us to be our teachers. That’s probably a topic for another column. Sorry, honey.)

This beach encounter, perhaps another Advent parable, made me think about witness. This young man didn’t notice that I noticed. We spoke no words. I doubt he was thinking: “I’ve got to convince this guy to pick up trash.” Chances are slim that he’s a subscriber to Monday Matters, able to read this story. He just was doing what he thought was right, just doing good, for no reason except goodness. There was no one except me around to pat him on the back.

In case you haven’t noticed, in our world these days, there is ample opportunity to do good. St. Francis said we should preach the gospel at all times and use words if necessary. That doesn’t get us off the hook from speaking of our faith, being able to explain why it is in fact good news. But it does recognize that the ways we live in the world, the ways we treat each other, the ways we treat God’s creation, speak volumes. The ways we live in the world have the potential to bring change.

On Sundays in Advent, we’ve been hearing about John the Baptist. His whole life and ministry was a matter of witness, pointing beyond himself to Christ, to love breaking into the world. He obviously didn’t care what people thought of him. He was all about pointing to the light. We heard yesterday in church that John was not the light but came to bear witness to the light. And we read about him because in all of his eccentricity (and he gives new meaning to the word “eccentric”), he models what it means to be a witness.

Goodness surrounds us. Where do you see it? Are you noticing, watching, expecting, staying alert to it, even if it’s just a faint glimmer, a small effort? That’s sort of the deal with Advent. Who are the people that have been a witness to you, showing you how to live in the world? How have you been changed by their witness? Think of a moment when you saw someone do good. Maybe thank that person for the moment. At least, thank God for that person. Then consider opportunities before you to be a witness on this day, December 14. Someone might just notice. Or not. But ask the Holy One to place before you this day that chance to do good.

Advent calls us to watch, to be alert. For Jesus’ sake, how can you be on the lookout for goodness?

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (December 7, 2020)

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Love bears all things, believe all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
-I Corinthians 13

 

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
-Luke 19

Church fights

Turns out jolly old St. Nicholas wasn’t always so jolly. The saint who we celebrated yesterday allegedly punched the heretic Arius in the nose at the Council of Nicea (325 AD). A good old church fight.

In my time, I’ve witnessed a few church fights. I bet you have too. There have been fights over social and political issues, for sure. Fights over liturgy and language and leadership. Fights over money, for sure. Fights over who’s in and who’s out. Fights over how to read the Bible and who gets communion. Fights over what kind of music is acceptable to our Lord. I’ve crossed the garden committee and the altar guild, the finance committee and the ushers, and lived to tell about it. I’ve witnessed fights over the most efficient ways to make sandwiches for a lunch program for people in need, prompting those words clergy fear: “We’ve never done it that way.” I’ve negotiated fights between church ministries that had to share a refrigerator. I’ve noted the creativity of the human spirit, finding all kinds of things to dispute.

I had always known that church fights happen. I came to realize that sometimes they are not a dispute between a good and a bad thing, but the collision of two good and noble things. “My way of serving Jesus is just a bit more important than yours.” How do we navigate such?

Since day one, the church has had to figure this out. The church in first century Corinth received several letters from St. Paul. Those letters describe church fights about food, liturgy, sex, money and leadership. Any of that sound familiar? Maybe there were valid arguments for both sides. But what St. Paul said is that what really matters is not who is right, but what builds up the church. In response to these various disputes, Paul writes his great hymn about love (I Corinthian 13).

In Morning Prayer we recently read the story of Zacchaeus (see above). He was a tax collector, held in low regard with good reason by his people. He had an encounter with Jesus that turned into a conversion experience, out of which he decided to give away half his wealth and restore any wrong he had done fourfold. Jesus is criticized for hanging out with Zacchaeus. While I’ve know this story since Sunday School, and while I’ve sung the song about the wee little man climbing up into a tree, I never noticed what Jesus says in response to this criticism. He says this about Zacchaeus: “He, too is a son of Abraham.” In other words, to the critics Jesus says: “Hold on. As unlikable, perhaps reprehensible as he may be, Zacchaeus is your brother.”

It’s the wisdom of our baptismal covenant that we are to seek Christ in all persons (even when Christ comes well-disguised). What part of “all” do we not understand? It’s the wisdom of eastern traditions that say the light in you greets the light in me. It’s the wisdom of the South African theology of Ubuntu, which proclaims the inherent interconnectedness of humankind.

In case you haven’t noticed, we live in a time marked by division and rancor. It bubbles up from our personal resentments. It trickles down from our leadership. In families, in churches, in political discourse, we too easily find reason to dismiss our connection to each other.

Jesus calls us to another way. I’m wondering where you hear that call this week. It doesn’t mean we won’t have disputes or disagreements. It doesn’t mean we suspend deep convictions about what is right, what is just. It does mean that we embrace the sometimes annoying truth of our inherent interconnectedness. So we bless each other. We pray for each other. We forgive each other and seek forgiveness. And we do our best to walk in the way of love.

I’m working on it. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not quite there yet.

-Jay Sidebotham


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Monday Matters (November 30, 2020)

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The Collect for the First Sunday in Advent
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 
 
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
-Romans 15:13
New Revised Standard Version

 

Oh! May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!
-Romans 15:13
The Message

 

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.
– Barbara Kingsolver

 

Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering ‘it will be happier’.
– Alfred Lord Tennyson

Hope

When I was in seminary, our New Testament professor gave us this assignment: Write a parable. Sound simple? Try it some time. It’s harder than you might think. As if we needed it, it helps us recognize Jesus’ genius. I wrote a few really bad ones. I wrote one about Advent, which I often bring out at this time of year. Actually, like many good stories, it sort of wrote itself. Sorry if you’ve heard it before. It goes like this.

The experience of Advent is like unto that season in my life when I commuted from the suburbs into Manhattan. That daily trek involved a train ride, on tracks that ran along the Hudson River. In winter, commuting took place in darkness. Seasoned commuters gathered on the platform, clustered in precise intervals, knowing exactly where the doors on the train would open. It seemed to be a law of the universe that the colder and windier the morning, the longer the train was delayed. Delay happened often. Sometimes the train didn’t show up at all, which led to a scramble for other ways to get to work. One could never predict. So standing in our clusters on those dark, chilly mornings, anxiety could be high. We would look up the train track, craning to see far into the distance. And waiting.

And then one could see the tiniest bit of light on the track. So very faint. But that first, little bit of light changed everything. For me, there was a sigh of relief. Don’t get me wrong. I was still cold. The wind penetrated. I was not yet on the train. But I knew that soon and very soon it would arrive. That bit of light, perhaps comparable to the first candle lit on an Advent wreath, changed everything. It changed not only my expectation of the future, but also the way I navigated the present dark, anxious, chilly moment until the train arrived.

I’m wondering how you might see that parable at work in the world. Maybe we witness it now, with the promise of a COVID vaccine. It’s not here yet, but as leaders have told us, there is light at the end of the tunnel. That small glimmer, yet unrealized, changes how we act now. I don’t know about you, but it has diminished my Corona-fatigue. It’s also encouraged me to keep doing the things (as annoying as they are) that mitigate spread. It’s made me take to heart the admonitions that what we do now is an expression of love of neighbor. The medical hope for the future changes how I live now.

That is the deal with Advent, as far as I can tell. It is a season focused on hope. That doesn’t mean we just sit around in a holding pattern. It means we conduct our lives right now, this Monday, confident in the promises of Christ’s coming, signified in that manger, but also arriving in each of our hearts, in each of our encounters, in each of our responses to a world in need, in our communities, in our big and beautiful and broken world.

At the church where I am presently privileged to serve, our focus this season is on everyday hope. We’re asking folks to consider ways that hope can shape our thoughts, words and deeds right now, in the midst of considerable coincident crises. Wherever you find yourself as Advent begins, you might want to consider the ways that you can hold on to hope. And as you’re doing all that, play the 1965 Curtis Mayfield hit, a great Advent hymn, which has this refrain:

People get ready. There’s a train a-coming. You don’t need no baggage. You just get on board. All you need is faith. To hear the diesels humming. You don’t need no ticket. You just thank the Lord. So people get ready.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect

What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.
This week!  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.

Stephanie is a gift to the church, with a joyful heart for the Jesus movement. She is a good friend of RenewalWorks and has volumes to share with us about discipleship and evangelism. Join us and invite others.

Join our email list to receive the Zoom link:  Sign up here

Monday Matters (November 23, 2020)

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I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
-Nelson Mandela
Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.
-Winston Churchill
Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.
-Deuteronomy 31:6
I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
-Joshua 1:9
Love the Lord, all you his saints.The Lord preserves the faithful, but abundantly repays the one who acts haughtily. Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.
-Psalm 31:23, 24
Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
-from the Post-Communion Prayer at the conclusion of the service of Holy Eucharist

Be not afraid

A recent conversation took me back to the days when I worked at an ad agency, before I made the slight career shift to ordained ministry. (I’ve been told that I’m still in advertising, but that’s another topic.) Though it was a particularly secular environment, in which theological issues and liturgical practices never came up in staff meetings or client presentations, there were some spiritual lessons.

In one conversation with the principal of the agency, he posited two motivations in promoting a product or service: love and fear. An advertisement should either connect with what you love, or tap into what you’re afraid of. For instance, this was an agency that came up with the slogan for air filters for your car: “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later.” Buy this product out of fear of automotive apocalypse. Judgment Day is coming for your Oldsmobile. I’m guessing you can think of other advertising examples.

The conversations that evoked this memory had to do with church history, and more specifically, the personal spiritual journeys of people in our congregations. In my years in Episcopal congregations, I’ve noted that many of our people come from other traditions where the fear of God, the fear of judgment, the fear of damnation was the motivator. God was the celestial judge just waiting for people to mess up. Better be religious or else. No wonder so many people feel that they have been spiritually wounded. No wonder there are so many nones (i.e., no religious affiliation) and dones (i.e., done with church).

I haven’t counted to verify but I’m told there are 365 times in the Bible in which people are told that they should not be afraid. One for each day. A daily exhortation. We’ll read a few of those stories in Advent and Christmas seasons. The opening lines from angels to Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, shepherds are some version of “Fear not!” I can imagine that fear might be a reasonable response to an unexpected angelic visit.

But maybe it’s deeper than just surprise. Maybe the angels are also saying that fear is not a healthy motivator. It brings with it toxicity that deforms relationships with God and neighbor. We see that fear-based brokenness at work in families, workplaces, churches, and in our political system. It pervades our racial reckoning. It shapes our regard for those who differ from us and leads us to treat those folks without regard for Christ’s presence in each one of them, dismissing the inherent dignity in each person, created in God’s image.

This kind of fear differs from the fear of the Lord that scripture tells us is the beginning of wisdom. That kind of fear, that spirit of awe recognizes that our lives unfold in the presence of a power greater than ourselves. The good news of our faith is that that greater power is by nature the power of love (and not the love of power).

I’ve been told that the opposite of love is fear. The Bible seems to confirm that when we read that perfect love casts out fear. Another way to think about it.  Courage is the opposite of fear, recognizing that the word courage shares the same root as heart (as in the French word for heart, coeur). Digging more deeply into the word, Richard Rohr points out that courage comes from the Latin, cor-agere, literally “an act of the heart.’

So blessings to you this day, in this unusual time when there are a bunch of reasons to indulge in fear. We launch on a season of thanksgiving and enter Advent, a season of hope, leading to a season of comfort and joy. May we start out this week, living not in fear but with courage, with acts of the heart. In whatever faces you this week, be fearless. Be of good courage.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.

 

Next call:  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.
Join our email list to receive the Zoom link:

Monday Matters (November 16, 2020)

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We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 50% of what we see and hear, 70% of what we discuss with others, 80% of what we personally experience, 95% or what we teach others.
-Edgar Dale

 

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
-The Book of Common Prayer, page 236

 

Your word is a lantern to my feet, and a light upon my path.
-Psalm 119:105

 

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
-James 1:22-25

 

Jesus said: You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.
-John 5:39

 

Know the word.
Love the word. 
Live the word. 
Give the word.
-attributed to Mother Teresa

Why read the Bible?

I was reminded last week of the story of Karl Barth, prolific Swiss theologian of the 20th century, one of the greats. Let’s just say he never had an unexpressed written thought. He offered volumes upon volumes of dense writing (that often made me feel dense) on all kinds of subjects. At one point, a smart-ass seminarian asked if the good doctor could sum that all up in one sentence. Kind of a gotcha question. Dr. Barth said he could do so and he did so with the following sentence: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

If that story is not true, it ought to be, for what it reveals is the role the Bible plays in the Christian faith journey. In the work we do with congregations, we’ve learned that a key factor in spiritual vitality in churches is engagement with scripture. Understatement alert: In the Episcopal world, that can mean different things to different folks. But a distinctive element, in the words of Will Willimon in his book Shaped by the Bible, is that a Christian congregation is one that is confronted by and shaped by the Bible. How does that happen?

Yesterday in church, we heard a prayer that comes up once a year (included above.) It’s about scripture, asking God’s help in engagement with scripture, delineating a process that involves five steps. In the prayer. we ask for grace to:

1. Hear: We are meant simply to be open, to pay attention, to decide that the words of scripture are worth listening to. Jesus would often tell the crowds that he offered his teaching for those who had ears to hear. We often decide what we will hear. Spouses and children and students and clergy often engage in selective hearing. We all have a lot we can listen to, and we all face lots of distractions. How will we choose?

2. Read: Find out what the Bible says, for yourself. Do the work. As one pastor said to his congregation, perhaps in frustration: “I can’t read the Bible for you.” It’s a discipline, and so we often suggest some kind of daily ritual, a morning quiet time, participation in the Daily Office (so chock full of scripture), devotional guides like Forward Day by Day. We encourage a set bit of time each day, even if it’s just a few minutes. We encourage a sacred place in your home, a quiet place, a particular chair, maybe marked by a candle or a closed door or a sound machine to help keep focus.

3. Mark: The method of Bible study known as the African model asks a couple questions. It begins by asking what word or phrase strikes you. It then asks where the passage intersects with your life. That’s a good place to start in marking scripture. Don’t be afraid to underline. Keep a journal that includes your most honest and irreverent questions. Pray those questions, or take them to someone you trust for spiritual counsel.

4. Learn: It’s what disciples do. A disciple is a learner, a student. That means, among other things being prepared for something new, something different, to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know. True learning comes with putting what you hear, read, and mark to work, to be doers of the word, not only hearers, to quote the New Testament letter of James.

5. Inwardly digest: Let it become part of you. We sometimes hear, as Episcopalians dive more deeply into scripture, that they are amazed how much of the Bible comes from the Book of Common Prayer. It actually happened the other way around. Those who shaped our guide for worship had inwardly digested the words of scripture. Those words were deeply integrated. It shows.

Why do any of this? Yesterday’s collect tells us it is not in order to be holier or smarter than thou. It is for the sake of hope, hope of everlasting life given to us in Jesus. That everlasting life is not pie in the sky but is underway right now. We get to experience it more and more each day. And as Dr. Barth indicated, that hope is anchored in the love God for us, a love from which we can never be separated (eternally). The Bible in all its complexity, in the parts we like and don’t, in the parts we understand and don’t, is at its core a story of that ongoing relationship, a story of love that will not let us go.

So hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. Because we can all use more hope.

-Jay Sidebotham

RenewalWorks: Connect
What happens after RenewalWorks?
We invite you to join us for a new monthly online series to discuss how to continue this work of spiritual growth and to support one another on the way.

 

Next call:  Wednesday, December 2nd, 7pm EDT

 

Our guest presenter will be the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, Canon for Evangelism, Racial Reconciliation and Creation Care for the Presiding Bishop.
Join our email list to receive the Zoom link:

Monday Matters (November 9, 2020)

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The gospel reading for the feast of St. Martin:  Luke 18:18-27
A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good-except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'”  “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus replied, “What is impossible with humans is possible with God.”

What does the goose represent?

Later this week (Wednesday), we observe the feast of St. Martin. I love the guy. He’s the patron saint of the first church in which I served, St. Martin’s in Providence, Rhode Island, a great place. When I arrived, I discovered that the symbol of St. Martin is a goose. There were renderings of geese and references to geese all over the place. It didn’t strike me as the most noble mascot, but I went with the symbolism, new priest and all. But why a goose?

Martin, a priest, was elected bishop and didn’t want to be a bishop. Perhaps a measure of his wisdom, but that’s another topic. (Bishops, what do you think?) Upon election, Martin hid from the folks who wanted him to take the job. He hid in a barn, seemingly a good idea, except the honking of the geese in aforementioned barn gave away his hiding place. Next thing you know, he’s wearing a mitre.

That story endears Martin to me. It’s one in a series of stories in the Bible and in our tradition in which people are called by God and wonder if the call is a wrong number. Who me? Why me? You’ve got the wrong person, O Holy One. I’ve felt that way from time to time. Have you?

More about Martin. A patron saint of France, he was born in 330 in what is now Hungary. His early years were spent in Italy. After service in the Roman army, he settled in Poitiers, whose bishop, Hilary, he admired. According to legend, while Martin was still a catechumen, he was approached by a poor man who asked for alms in the name of Christ. Martin, drawing his sword, cut off part of his military cloak and gave it to the beggar. On the following night, Jesus appeared to Martin, clothed in half a cloak, and said to him, “Martin, a simple catechumen, covered me with his garment.” As a legend, the story may or may not be true. But if it’s not true, it ought to be.

That story endears me to Martin further. It reminds me of the parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25), in which Jesus commends those who help those in need, noting that such help is the way to meet Christ. It’s a principle reflected in the baptismal promises which call us to seek and serve Christ in all persons. All of them. And we all know that Christ can often come very well disguised. (Perhaps a good thing to recall in the wake of a particularly divisive election season.)

Martin, a rich young man, a person of means and influence, met and served Christ in this encounter. That’s why the gospel reading chosen for his day (see above) features a rich young man challenged to share what he had. The young man in the gospel chose a different path. He seems pretty clear that Jesus’ call is a wrong number. He goes away, sad. And it seems Jesus is sad too, according to accounts in other gospels. The young man’s refusal causes Jesus to offer the image of a camel going through the eye of a needle. It’s a tough passage for those attached to riches to enter the kingdom of God. It’s to let go. It’s tough for any of us who in terms of global poverty are wealthy. Is there hope for any of us?

Thanks be to God, the story doesn’t end there. Jesus says that with God, all things are possible. So with the help of this young man, and with the witness of St. Martin, let’s consider what is possible. That possibility will unfold as we take our cue from St. Martin this week. How are you being called? Do you wonder if that call is a wrong number? If there were a barn nearby, would you go hide there to escape the call? More specifically, where is God calling you to address the needs of our world, so evident in our considerable coincident crises? Who will you encounter, calling you to share what you have? How will you respond?

Take Martin’s witness to this possibility, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll meet Christ in the process.

-Jay Sidebotham

Consider a great resource in pandemic when we’re spending time at home:

RenewalWorks for Me

RenewalWorks For Me is a personal guide for the spiritual journey, providing coaching to help individuals grow. It begins with a brief online survey which assesses where you are in your spiritual life. We call it the Spiritual Life Inventory. We believe that it might be a wonderful practice for this unusual season in our common life.
Once your responses have been processed, we’ll email a helpful explanation of our findings, along with some tips for improving your spiritual journey. You’ll also be given a chance to sign up for an eight-week series of emails that will offer some suggestions, coaching for how you can grow spiritually, and ways you can go deeper in love of God and neighbor.  Learn more at renewalworks.org
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Jay Sidebotham

Contact: Rev. Jay Sidebotham jsidebotham@renewalworks.org
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement www.renewalworks.org